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Minority Recruitment: Success in Numbers Will Improve Care

Dean Fischbach at 2005 P&S graduation with Olatunbosun O. Aganga

Dean Fischbach at 2005 P&S graduation with Olatunbosun O. Aganga

In the three years since Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., assistant professor of clinical obstetrics & gynecology, was tapped by Gerald Fischbach, M.D., executive vice president and dean, to head P&S's Office of Diversity & Minority Affairs, minority enrollment has nearly tripled.

"Dr. Fischbach's mandate to me was to increase diversity at P&S and through strenuous outreach, we are having success fulfilling that mandate," Dr. Hutcherson says.

Indeed, enrollment by underrepresented minorities at P&S has steadily risen, from about 8 percent in 2001, to 18 percent in 2003, to 23 percent of the entering class of 2004 (35 out of 150 students.)

Those statistics are exciting to Dr. Hutcherson, who says it wasn't long ago that many minority students didn't even bother to apply to P&S, viewing it as cold, remote and out of bounds for them.

"Many students thought of us as being stuck away in our Ivy tower with the gates down," Dr. Hutcherson says. "But we have gone out of our way to let them know 'we want you,' and 'you will be happy here.'"

Dr. Hutcherson travels the country to attend minority recruitment fairs, alerting students to the many advantages of a P&S education.

"There are a host of things we tell students about – that the Columbia faculty is one of the most diverse in the country and that the patient population spans the spectrum from poor to rich, from inner city to suburban, enabling students to encounter a broad range of diseases that give them a unique educational experience. We talk about the P&S Club and how that contributes to quality of life. And we talk about what it's like to be in a class with people who are not only ethnically, racially and economically diverse but also have had diverse life experiences that enrich one another's educational experience."

Increasing the numbers of minority physicians is critical, Dr. Hutcherson says, to improving the quality of healthcare for the minority population.

"Studies show that minority doctors are more likely to practice in areas where minorities live, so access to care improves when the number of minority doctors goes up," she says. "Also, minority patients feel more comfortable and are more likely to follow instructions and recommendations from doctors who look like them and who identify with their culture. That translates to better quality of care."

As minority applications continue to rise (they have doubled in the past year), Dr. Hutcherson says the recruitment effort is working because of the backing of both the medical school and the university.

"This is a place where both the dean of the medical school and the president of the university, Lee Bollinger, have taken a clear stand to let minority students know that P&S, and Columbia, is a place where they are welcome," Dr. Hutcherson says. "In addition, students know that at our office – Diversity & Minority Affairs – the door is always open. They need not feel lost. They need not flounder. No appointment is required and someone will always be available for the student. I've given students my personal cell phone number and my home phone number. I tell my own kids, 'the students are my children, too.'"

—Anna Sobkowski